Warprize (Chronicles of the Warlands) by Elizabeth Vaughan

  “Noble Warlord, the debt is owed by one of your house.”

  Keir raised an eyebrow. “How so?”

  Remn folded his hands in front of his chest. “Noble Warlord, one of your household came to me seeking a loan. She sought the money for the purchase of herbs and medicines for your men held captive at the time. In return, she pledged a book to me as a surety of the repayment of the debt. The book has not yet been redeemed.”

  Keir glanced at me, then back at Remn. “And the name of this person?”

  Remn bowed low and left his head down. “Forgive me, Noble Warlord, but by the orders of my King I am forbidden to speak her name.”

  Keir frowned. The room stilled somewhat, sensing his displeasure. “It is not wise to offer insult to the warprize.”

  Remn raised his head to look Keir in the eye. “Forgive me, Mighty Warlord. It is not I who offers the insult.”

  I sat there, stunned.

  Keir rose. The room started to rise as well, but he gestured them down. “Be at ease. I will return when I have concluded this business.” He looked at me. “Warprize.”

  We moved toward the sleeping area. Remn took the package from his servant and followed.

  Once in the privacy of the room, I turned, unsure of my welcome. Keir seated himself on the end of the bed. Remn ignored him, opened his arms, and embraced me. Tears filled my eyes as I buried my head in his shoulder. He smelled of old books, dust, and home.

  “Dearest Lara,” Remn whispered in my ear as he held me tight. “We feared you dead or worse.” He stepped back with tears in his eyes. “All we knew was that after you disappeared into the camp it erupted into lights and noise and celebration. Anna feared you sacrificed. She has not eaten since you left. I swear that she has actually lost weight in these last few days.” He laughed shakily and wiped his eyes. “I hear tell that the food in the castle has all the taste of straw of late.” He darted a glance out of the corner of his eye at the brooding figure of the Warlord. “Othur came to me and asked if I would try to find out how you were. So here I am.”

  I wiped the moisture from my eyes and smiled. “I am well, Remn. Truly.”

  Keir, looking stern, interrupted. “What do you mean that you cannot speak her name?”

  Remn sighed. “The King has ordered that no one speak of her, or make inquiry as to her health or well-being.”

  Keir frowned.

  I placed a hand on Remn’s shoulder. “Please tell Anna that I am fine and well treated. She mustn’t worry. Tell her to eat or she will get sick.”

  Keir snorted at that, as if he understood the jest.

  Remn smiled and hugged me again. “I will. And here . . . here is the book that you pledged. I cannot keep it and would not sell it.” He opened the package and pulled out my old friend. The leather had been cleaned and it smelled of saddle soap.

  I laughed, delighted, and without thinking, turned to show the book to Keir. He looked at me oddly. Turning toward a chest, he opened one and pulled out a small pouch. “My thanks, bookseller. Here is the money that was borrowed, and a little for your troubles in collecting it.”

  Remn stood straight. “Warlord, that is not necessary. I do this for friendship’s sake.”

  Keir gave him a serious look. “Then let me do it in the name of the men who were aided.”

  Remn bowed, then straightened. He looked up into Keir’s eyes with a stern expression. “You were given a treasure, Warlord. The King may not see it that way, but my people do. See that it is cherished.”

  “Remn.” I admonished him, a blush rising in my face.

  Keir merely nodded, as if in agreement. “I must return to my men. Warprize, return to the meal in your own time.”

  With that he left the room.

  Remn clutched my arm. “Lara, Othur sends you a message. Xymund was the one to clear your room of the last of your things after the ceremony. He was in the room for a long time. And emerged in a towering rage. From the way he talks, it seems that he has somehow convinced himself that you betrayed him to the Warlord. Even when he spoke to the Warlord’s man alone, his rage seemed centered on you. Be careful, Lara. He hates you.”

  “Remn, I have obeyed Xymund. He has no reason to hate me.” I clutched the book to my chest. “Can you stay?”

  Remn shook his head. “I must get back and get word to Anna before the poor woman loses another ounce.” He smiled and hugged me. I held on hard, until at last he slipped from my arms, his face wet with tears. “Be well, my child.” Marcus escorted him out as I wiped my face. I placed the book under my pillow, took a few deep breaths, and returned to the meeting area.

  Keir was speaking when I entered. “. . . so plans must change as well. Provided the peace holds, we will make new division of our forces. I now have no choice but to return to the Heart of the Plains with the warprize. Simus, I would leave you here in my stead.”

  “Ah, my suffering in your service knows no boundaries,” Simus replied in mocking tones. I stepped to my seat amidst the chuckles with a pit in my stomach that had not been there before. While my head knew that I was the Warlord’s possession, my heart had denied the possibility of leaving my home. Just talking to Remn made me long for Anna and the kitchen. How could I bear never to see them again?

  Keir continued to speak. “I’ve called for a ceremony honoring the dead, both Xyian and of the Plains, to be held at the castle tomorrow night. Discuss among yourselves who should attend. He stood and looked about. “If there is nothing further . . .” From his tone, there had better not be.

  “I’s hold your token, Warlord.”

  My eyes widened. Gils had somehow managed to get into the tent and now held the token in his hand. His young voice quavered, but he stood tall before the crowd, fresh scrubbed from the look of him. His tunic had no sleeves, and the tattoos on both arms were displayed clearly.

  Keir sat back down, his face serious, but there was warmth in his voice. “What truth would you voice, warrior? At a senel that you were asked to serve, not join?”

  Gils swallowed hard, but did not back down. “I’s Gils. I’s give voice to one truth. I’s wish to a-pren-tice,” he spoke the word slowly and carefully, “to the warprize and forsake the way of a warrior for the path of healing.” The feathers on the token were moving, and I realized his hands were shaking.

  There were cries of outrage as warriors leaped to their feet. Gils’s eyes widened and his hands clutched the token tighter, making the bells ring. He didn’t turn to see the men behind him. Instead, he kept his eyes focused on Keir.

  Keir held up both hands, bringing silence with a gesture. “He holds my token.”

  The others sat back down.

  “I will speak to your truth.” Keir stood at the edge and looked down at Gils, who nodded. The youngster returned the token to its place, but remained standing next to it.

  “What you speak of is not our way, Gils. This truth would change your life forever, especially in the eyes of our people.” Gils opened his mouth, but Keir raised a hand. “I will consider your truth. This is not a decision made lightly, nor should your truth be answered while we are in the field. Continue in your regular duties.”

  Gils’s shoulders slumped. Keir studied him for a moment. “What are your secondary duties, Gils?”

  Yers spoke up. “Kitchen helper, Warlord.” The man shook his head. “He’s talked of nothing but the healing tent since he started taking meals there.”

  “If I remember, kitchen duty is much sought after, if only for the treats one can sneak.” There was general laughter to that comment. Keir continued, “Gils, is it your truth that you would rather empty slop pots than work in the kitchen?”

  Gils looked up and nodded. Even I could see the hope in his eyes.

  Keir looked up and shrugged his shoulders. “Well, it is your truth, lad, strange though it may be. So hear then, as I speak to part of your truth. Your secondary duties are now to the healing tent, as helper.” Gils opened his mouth, but Keir again held up a warning han
d. “As to the rest of your truth, I will consider that upon our return home. You are not released from your duties as a warrior.” Keir looked out over the crowd. “I suspect a few months of slop pots may change your mind.” Laughter swelled at that.

  Gils beamed. “My thanks, Warlord.” He turned and left the tent, avoiding a glaring Marcus on the way out.

  “No.” Keir watched him go. “My thanks for your truth, warrior.” Keir raised his head to look out over the crowd. “If there are no other truths, then the senel is closed.”

  The warriors were all talking, some standing and milling about. Keir moved to stand by Simus. The black man looked grim. “Iften is planning something.” He spoke so quietly that I had to strain to hear him.

  Keir nodded, looking out over the heads of his men. “I agree. If you feel well enough, I’d like to talk, Simus.”

  Simus laughed. “I wouldn’t miss it, Warlord. Let us retreat to my tent for kavage and discourse.” He turned his head. “Joden! Where are you?”

  Joden appeared on the platform with the four bearers. “Offering bribes of kavage and meat to these men to heave your fat carcass back to your tent.”

  “Fat! I’m not fat.” Simus tried to look offended, but no one was fooled. The young warriors got into position with much groaning and moaning and sarcastic comments from Simus.

  “Come and see me tomorrow, little healer!” Simus laughed. “I wish to hear all the details of your newest escapade.” He shook his head with a great smile. “Healed a broken leg. The warrior-priests will curse the skies!” With a grunt, the men lifted his cot and started moving away, staggering under the weight. “Have a care!” Simus growled, then laughed. “Have a care!” Guards held the main flaps open as they left.

  Keir turned and gestured for me to precede him into the sleeping area. His growl came from behind me even before the tent flap fell closed. “You’re not to use the token.”

  I turned and faced him, clasping my trembling hands in front of me. “There was a need—”

  “There was no need,” Keir growled, his jaw clenched. “This is hard enough to accomplish without you—”

  “I cannot heal without—”

  “Damn the supplies! This is about the peace,” Keir bellowed.

  I blinked.

  Keir ran his hand through his hair. “A peace you seem determined to threaten.”

  “I!” My back stiffened at that. “I’ve kept my part of this bargain, Warlord. Nor has Xymund violated its terms.”

  “The attacks on the horses—”

  “There may be a few malcontents, as there are in this camp.” I raised my voice to match his, and glared just as hard. How dare he imply—

  “My people hold to their word, Warprize. Explain why your brother offers such insult?”

  I dropped my eyes and stepped back a pace. How to explain what I didn’t understand myself? Lowering my voice, I fell back to my strongest argument. “He will not risk his people by violating this peace.”

  “His head, you mean.” Keir stalked about, as if needing to pace.

  My temper flared back. “His head, then. He has no reason to jeopardize his life or throne.”

  “His actions will speak for him,” Keir snapped. “If he’s behind these attacks on the herds, he’ll answer for it.” He turned on his heel to go.

  Marcus popped in front of him, arms crossed over his chest. “Done with your snapping?”

  Keir raised his eyes to the ceiling. “What?”

  “You are taking her to a mourning ceremony? Tomorrow?”

  “Yes.” Keir cast a glance back at me. “It would not be a bad thing for her to be seen in the city. Rumor has her treated badly.”

  Marcus tightened his lips. “What’s she to wear? Trous is fine for camp, but city women wear dresses more often than not. I’ve managed to keep her clothed so far, but she needs other things.”

  I pressed my lips together and looked away.

  Keir’s voice was thoughtful. “I had not thought of that.”

  Marcus snorted. “Seems to be happening a lot of late.”

  I looked over at that, to see Keir arch an eyebrow and tilt his head. “So, the clothing of one woman is a task beyond your skills, old man?” He moved past us, to the main flap. “Who’d have thought it?”

  “Where are you off to?” Marcus demanded.

  “To Simus’s tent.”

  “And me?” I demanded.

  “As you like” was the comment tossed over his shoulder. With that Keir disappeared.

  Marcus glared at me.

  I glared right back. “This is not my fault. I wasn’t permitted to bring anything with me!”

  Marcus nodded. “As it should be. The Warlord has claimed you. You take nothing except from his hands.” He frowned. “I will think on this, Warprize.”


  He sniffed and moved away to finish cleaning.

  I stomped out, half a mind to stomp all the way back to the castle and home. How dare he imply that Xymund or I would risk breaking the agreement. Admittedly Xymund was motivated more out of self-interest than anything else, but motivated he was. Still, the hatred in his voice had been so strong. The idea that Xymund would take such a risk made me furious and sick, all at the same time. There’d been other times in the past that he’d taken actions that benefitted himself more than the country. The fact that Warren and Othur cared deeply for the kingdom gave me some measure of comfort. They would stop him, if they knew what he was doing. Xymund had a slyness that I did not trust.

  Rafe and Prest were waiting for me when I emerged from the tent, and thoughts of flight went out of my head. But other thoughts whirled about, skittering around like colts on ice. I turned toward the healing tent, guards in tow.

  How had Keir’s opinion of me come to be so important so quickly? My fears came up in my throat, and for a moment I could barely breathe. I’d been well treated so far, better than I’d hoped. The demands on me . . . my face flushed at the thought . . . had not been uncomfortable. Truth be told, they had been . . . interesting.

  I wondered how many warprizes Keir had. I knew he had taken other cities, there might have been more. Was it one warprize per kingdom? Where were they?

  Were they happy?

  I frowned at the ground beneath my feet. At least I was being allowed to practice my craft. Whatever the future held, I had that at the very least.

  Of course, who knew what would happen when the army returned to its homeland. I took a deep breath and focused on my feet again, watching myself take one step after another. I had been promised. I had fulfilled the promise, and would continue to do so. I was sure that Keir would not harm me physically.

  But there are other kinds of pain.


  There were people everywhere, spilling out of the tent and milling around like bees on honey. The sides of the tent had been rolled up, and people were gathered on all sides. I lengthened my stride, leaving Rafe and Prest behind, and pushed my way through the crowd.

  At the center lay Atira, surrounded by admirers. There was a piece of wood lying on her chest, with stones on top in some kind of pattern. Atira was craning her neck to see, as the people who crowded around her cot reached down and moved the stones around. There was lots of talk and laughter, and Atira’s face was flushed.

  “Word travels on the wind,” Rafe commented. Prest nodded his agreement.

  “What in the name of the Goddess is going on!” I stood there with my hands on my hips.

  Everyone turned in consternation, took one look at my face, and took to their heels. The few that remained tried to offer explanations, and there were mentions of a dance and the pattern, and their plan. Atira was trying to hide the board with both hands, and I realized that she was trying desperately not to laugh.

  “Out of my tent!” I shooed at them with my hands. “Out! Out!”

  Atira lost her fight as hardened warriors fled before me. Rafe was laughing, leaning o
n Prest, who was roaring as well. “Silly fools,” I grumbled. “This is no way to treat an injured warrior.” I gestured to the sides. “Help me lower the sides.” I grumbled as we worked, and Rafe and Prest were hard-pressed to keep their faces straight.

  “Warprize, we were planning the pattern.” Atira was wiping her eyes with her hands. “They meant no harm.”

  “What is a pattern?” I asked as I moved up next to her.

  “For the dance!” She hastily covered the board. “Don’t look, Warprize! It’s bad luck.”

  “Very bad luck.” Joden walked into the tent. I smiled to see him. “I heard the noise, and came to see if you needed aid.” He looked around the tent. “I see that you have routed the enemy without my help.”

  “Atira needs rest.” I started to check the leather and the straps.

  “May I speak with her for a moment?”

  Atira’s eyes grew round. I looked over at Joden, but his face was calm and serene. “Of course, Joden. But not for too long. Do you need privacy?”

  “No, Warprize.” Joden moved to a seat by Atira’s cot. “Warrior.”

  “Singer.” Atira’s tone was respectful and questioning at the same time.

  Joden shook his head. “No. I am not a Singer yet. But that is why I have come to see you.”

  “Really?” Atira propped herself on her elbows.

  Joden nodded. “I am working on a song. I would sing of your injury.”

  Prest sucked in a breath. Rafe stood up straight. I could barely hear Atira’s response. “For all the sky to hear?”

  Joden nodded. “I need to hear your thoughts and words. Would you think on this, then speak to me of what happened?”

  “Yes.” Atira looked solemn. “I will.”

  Joden stood. “We will talk tomorrow.” He smiled at the rest of us, and walked out.

  Atira fell back onto the cot and let out a gust of breath. I laid a hand on her shoulder. “Are you all right?”

  She smiled up at me, her eyes filled. “Oh yes, Warprize.”

  I smiled back. “Well then, do you feel up to bathing?”

  She looked delighted. “I can?” She glanced at her leg.

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